Sunday, July 6, 2014

Alignment Woes - Neutral, Unaligned and Mechanical Difficulty

What is this guy?  He's a Rilmani.  Why don't you know about him? Because Rilmani are dumb.

Go read Thomas' thoughts about Alignment in 5th Edition over at The Tower of Infinite Evil first before you read this post because originally this was just going to be a comment on that post before it got really long.

If I'm reading Thomas right, his argument is that he'd like "Unaligned" from 4E brought back and "Neutral" aka "True Neutral" ditched.  Then most things would be "Unaligned" and only exceptional creatures/characters would align themselves with one of the big five, Good, Evil, Law, Chaos or Balance (Neutrality).

I'm on the record as not liking "Unaligned" as a player option for alignment, as I put it in a blog post a while back...
Playing an Unaligned character is tougher than it sounds, freedom from morality or a very flexible morality sounds like it should be easy to portray, but it can be tricky even for experienced players.  Unfortunately, being “Unaligned” can often just be used as an excuse for your PC to indulge in Selfish Prickdom, especially if you don’t share goals and relationships with the other party members.
But I do agree with Thomas that the idea of Neutral as seeking "balance" as really unworkable.  That's part of no-one remembers the Rilmani from Planescape who sought to keep everything balanced, because unlike the Tanar'ri or Baatezu or Modrons or any number of other bizarrely named creatures dedicated to a single alignment and that is because the idea of seeking to maintain a cosmic balance is dumb.  As Thomas puts it "I find it difficult to rationalize at times: someone who legitimately thinks we need to balance soup kitchens with a little mass murder now and then?".  For my part, I always imagine that version of True Neutral as a zen-like druid who retreats further and further into the wilderness and seeks a balance only insofar as he is willing to fight both "good" and "evil" creatures to protect the wilderness.

I don't really like the idea of the PCs defaulting to "Unaligned" and only a few deciding to dedicate themselves to a Cosmic Alignment.  I do see Thomas' point that it would make Alignment mechanically interesting again but I'd rather most D&D characters default to Good. Since most D&D games default to "Heroic" it makes the most sense to me to have the players default their characters to a flavor of good than Unaligned.

I've found running the D&D Next playtest that if I have most of my PCs as a flavor of "Good" lets them mostly ignore "Alignment" and just concentrate on being heroes.  My Planescape group has a Chaotic Neutral Halfling Thief, but aside from that I think all the PCs in my D&D games are currently a flavor of Good.  It's not a solution I'm entirely satisfied with, but alignment/morality is one of the hardest concepts to implement in an RPG.  Trying to enforce Humanity/Roads/Paths in Vampire the Masquerade was always difficult as well, at least in my experience.

I'd like to use something more along the lines of Alignment from Dungeon World, where acting according to your alignment gives you a mechanical bonus in the form of XP but unfortunately the D&D XP system makes that difficult to implement.  I'm toying around in my mind with some kind of "Story" or "Narrative" points that could be awarded separately from XP and fill that mechanical incentive for roleplaying that XP fills as a secondary feature in many games but I just can't quite figure out some of the details of how powerful or limited the points would be.  And I'm also toying with an alternate XP system that would reduce D&D's hundreds and thousands of XP for a level down to 10's to allow for a different XP award/reward system but that also has not quite gelled in my mind.

For now, I think I just need to find non-mechanical ways to reward PCs for acting according to their alignment.  Having good NPCs try to help/assist good PCs and so forth.

Another little disappointment with the Basic Rules is the brevity of their Alignment definitions.  Here's "Good" from 4E.

Protecting the weak from those who would dominate or kill them is just the right thing to do.  If you're a good character, you believe it is right to aid and protect those in need.  You're not required to sacrifice yourself to help others or to completely ignore your own needs, but you might be asked to place other's needs above your some cases, even if that means putting yourself in harm's way.  In many ways, that's the essence of being a heroic adventurer: The people of the town can't defend themselves from the marauding goblins, so you descend into the dungeon-at significant personal risk-to put an end to the goblin raids.
And it continues for two more paragraphs about that length.  Compare that to all three flavors of "Good" from the 5E Basic Rules

Lawful good (LG) creatures can be counted on to do the right thing as expected by society. Gold dragons,  paladins, and most dwarves are lawful good.
Neutral good (NG) folk do the best they can to help others according to their needs. Many celestials, some  cloud giants, and most gnomes are neutral good.
Chaotic good (CG) creatures act as their conscience  directs, with little regard for what others expect. Copper dragons, many elves, and unicorns are chaotic good.
I realize that we'll probably see better fleshed out alignments in the forthcoming Player's Handbook, but those alignments are a vague sentence of description and a short list of creatures that are usually that alignment.  Creatures that a player just picking up D&D for the first time may have no experience with.  Outside of D&D who considers Metallic Dragons as intrinsically good?  And then compare both to the succinct and action orientated definition of Good from Dungeon World:
Ignore danger to aid another
Lead others into righteous battle
Give up powers or riches for the greater good
Reveal a dangerous lie
Show mercy
Even the definition of Neutral from Dungeon World is more interesting than the "Do what you want, as long as it's not really Evil" selfishness of D&D neutrality/unaligned.
Make an ally of someone powerful
Defeat a personally important foe
Learn a secret about an enemy
Uncover a hidden truth
The Ideals included in 5E Basic background rules help flesh out the alignments and provide something closer to the Dungeon World alignments, like the 'Respect' Ideal of the Folk Hero.
Respect. People deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. (Good)
But as nice as the new Bonds, Ideals and Flaws are, they don't have any mechanical weight in the game, leaving it all up to the DM to give them narrative weight.  Something that I know that I personally need to give more thought and attention to.  At least until I figure out some kind or weird Narrative Point or non-OSR XP system that I could use with D&D 5E.

As an aside, looking back at the new D&D Basic Rules, it looks like "Unaligned" snuck back in as an afterthought for non-sentient creatures
Most creatures that lack the capacity for rational thought do not have alignments—they are unaligned. Such a creature is incapable of making a moral or ethical choice and acts according to its bestial nature. Sharks are savage predators, for example, but they are not evil; they have no alignment.

1 comment:

  1. I ken neutrality on the law-chaos axis, and actually kinda like it there, it's the good-evil axis where neutrality really suffers, I think (despite red-robed wizards in Dragonlance).

    I obviously haven't had much of the players-need-to-be-encouraged-to-be-good problem with my lack of massive D&D running in the past few years, but I also might have adopted some grognard attitudes about evil characters being acceptable and that D&D doesn't have to be an epic fantasy game about noble heroes saving the world.

    All that said, I'm still a little more into using an Honor system (a la Oriental Adventures) or something more like the werewolf reknown traits. Of course, in my system, I think you could just as easily ask the party to choose one alignment and all be aligned or inclined towards that alignment.

    Reading your take on my take, has given me the idea to add "inclined" into the mix (or alternately a fully aligned aspect), so someone could have good tendencies and yet be unaligned. Most characters in the world would be unaligned, but the "evil" humanoids still wouldn't trigger a detect evil spell just like the PCs wouldn't trigger detect good (barring paladins and clerics who're more likely to be fully aligned).


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